Arizona Family Courts have for many years resolved conflicts between parents who cannot agree on which school their children attend or which medical treatment their children receive. Last month, the Arizona Court of Appeals put an end to the Family Court making legal decisions on behalf of children.
In Nicaise v. Sundaram, the father believed that the child was developmentally delayed and sought various treatments for the child. The father also wanted to place the child in a public school with an IEP (Individualized Education Program). Mother disagreed, opposed any treatment, and wanted to home school the child. The mother and father had an extremely volatile relationship and were unable to agree on any of these issues. The Family Court in Maricopa County held a trial and ruled that the child would receive various treatments and attend a public school with an IEP in place.
The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction and authority by making the parents’ decisions on treatment and education for them. The statute regarding legal decision making (custody) authorizes the court to designate the parent who can make this sort of legal decision for a child, but does not give the court the authority to actually make the legal decision for the child. “We find no statutory grant of authority for such decisions. If the court determines that the parents cannot agree, the court must choose which parent shall decide. But the court cannot make the decision itself.” The appellate court went on to say that the trial court may consider each parent’s proposed decisions in making its determination of which parent shall make the decision.
In reaching its decision, the Court of Appeals specifically departed from its earlier decision in Jordan v. Rea to the extent that the Jordan court ruled that judges may make substantive legal decisions for parents who are unable to agree. The Arizona Court of Appeals decided Jordan in 2009, prior to when Arizona’s statutes regarding legal decision making changed in 2013.